Slandering the Sacred – Can Secular Law Prevent Religious Insult?

June 15, 2023 by J. Barton Scott & Siri Hansen

J. Barton Scott is a scholar of modern South Asian religions – modern Hinduism in particular – with interests in colonialism, postcolonial theory, and the history of secularism. His latest book is Slandering the Sacred: Blasphemy Law and Religious Affect in Colonial India (University of Chicago Press). To examine how religion is often associated with the taking and giving of offence, he uses the lens of British colonial blasphemy law to take us on a compelling journey through the history of global secularism and political feeling. As the narrative unfolds, we discover the evolution of the blurring of the borders between the secular and the sacred, and the public and the private.

We may think that addressing wounded sentiments through law is a recent phenomenon. In fact, the legislation Scott examines in his book is a proto-hate speech law. Enacted in 1927, Section 295A of the Indian Penal code is designed to address deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens of India by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.


What brought you to choose this topic for your book?

My first book was on 19th-century Hindu reform movements and looked at how Hindu thinkers were responding to and resisting British colonialism. Writing that book, I was just so concerned that it would wound somebody’s sentiments – any scholar who writes about Hinduism is a little paranoid about Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. You can imagine the kind of chilling effect the section has on speech about religion in India.

In my case, I decided to lean into my paranoia and write a book about this law that had had me so spooked to write about religion at all.

We’re still obsessed with basically the same set of concerns as a century ago: what kinds of things should people be able to say, what’s offensive or hurtful?

The law is interesting because it of such acute importance in contemporary India. It’s also interesting because it is kind of a proto-hate speech law, with relevance to anybody who thinks about such speech. So many of our contemporary cultural debates are about what kinds of speech should be permissible. We talk a lot about trigger warnings and cancel culture. We’re still obsessed with basically the same set of concerns as a century ago: what kinds of things should people be able to say, what’s offensive or hurtful? This law is about all of those kinds of questions.

What was the basic aim of Section 295A?

This question raises the broader question of why people regulate speech to begin with, and what kinds of harms people think are produced by injurious speech. Does bad speech cause violence and religious conflict? Does it injure the sovereign or the country? Does it injure the divine or the cosmos itself? Section 295A gives a clear answer to these questions. It is interested in religious insults only insofar as they have the potential to cause violence. When it talks about “religious feelings,” this law is really interested in one feeling in particular: outrage, as an emotion with a tendency to spill over into violence.

What does it do for a law to have emotion and feeling written into it? We think about feeling and emotions as something deeply interior and private, yet feeling here operates within the law as a profoundly public thing.

In very broad terms, during the nineteenth century religion came to be intimately associated with feeling rather than belief. There started to be a shift where religion is described as ultimately irrational and about feeling. Maybe it’s a thing that women do, maybe it’s a thing that racialized people do, you know, people who are “too emotional” to care for themselves. So, there’s no sense in talking about religion and debating religion because you’ll just wound feelings. Or that, at least, is how some British administrators were thinking by the end of the nineteenth century. To think about religion, obviously, is to think about all kinds of histories—of race, of gender, of class. These things can’t be disentangled.

If it is colonists formulating a law to address religion-related tension, what complications does that bring?

The British empire was structured around ideas of cultural difference. The British were really interested in studying the cultures of Indians and, while that was linked to a paternalism, there was also an ability to see difference (which was less the case for some other European empires of this period).

The Indian Penal Code is absolutely British in its conception, and that was quite intentional. The big transition happening in the 1830s was from a period of Orientalism, where colonial administrators had been super-stoked about Indian culture and were studying Sanskrit and Persian and Arabic and wanted to enshrine these traditional bodies of knowledge in all kinds of ways. Orientalism was superseded by the period of the Anglicists, who decided to rip away this whole Orientalist apparatus and impose ‘good British law’ in India. That law was sometimes understood as British, sometimes understood as being culturally neutral. It was firmly Indophobic in its conception.

The US constitution foregrounds something called religion in an especially overt way, producing all kinds of legal complications. What ‘counts’ as religion?

A central challenge with legislating around religion is defining what, exactly, constitutes a religion – which results in deciding what and who receives protection.

This has been a large question in the study of religion and law. The US constitution, for example, foregrounds something called religion in an especially overt way, producing all kinds of legal complications. What ‘counts’ as religion?

Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms certain kinds of protections to something called religion. Tax breaks are available for religious organizations, but the Canada Revenue Agency actually defines religion in a very narrow way – and it’s pretty much the most Christian-centric definition of religion you could possibly construct.

There is a paradox about blasphemy – or at least the defence of religion – and secularism, which can be seen as ‘not religion’ while simultaneously protecting it.

Yes, absolutely! Secularism is riddled with all kinds of paradoxes, which is what makes the scholarly study of secularism so rich and interesting. My book is exploring one such set of paradoxes.

What I'm doing in this book is asking how did people who lived in the culture of nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain and India understand blasphemy. The book is giving some kind of cultural history of this term ‘blasphemy’ in relationship to secularism.

People defined secularism in different ways in different historical periods. The generally accepted narrative has long been that Western societies were religious and then they were secularized and now they are secular. Scholars now understand the history of secularism to be way more complicated than this. For example, the earliest uses of the verb ‘secularize’ in English had to do with claiming church properties for the Crown. Henry VIII secularized the monasteries, which means he took their land and all their money and property. So the Crown ended up administering religion, which for us now, does not sound very secular, but that was precisely a secularising move when the Crown started administering religion.

The clearest definition of blasphemy that I discuss in my book is by M R Jayakar, who was a member of the Legislative Assembly in India in 1927. He defined blasphemy as an offence against religion per se. If you insult God or Bible or Quran or whatever, that would qualify as blasphemy. But something that’s not an insult to religion itself would, by his definition, not qualify as blasphemy.

But I must stress that it is totally not my job to define these terms. It’s my job to describe how these terms have been used historically at different moments. I’m interested in the history of ideas, the history of concepts, and concepts change over time. So, all of these terms change over time and are used in different ways in different places.

Canada's laws are historically intertwined with colonial law in India.

Your book traverses a rich and complex ground, and frequently causes the reader to consider the manifold connections between concepts and the culture in which they occur.

That’s how my brain works! I am a scholar who likes to draw connections between things and I'm doing a lot of connective work in this book And I like scholarly books that do cause people to think about lots of different things. Good scholarly writing sparks people to new thought, to go do research on their own. I am, it’s true, opening a lot of boxes here and then moving on. However, if someone wants to pick up one of those boxes and follow through on what it holds, that is an absolutely outstanding outcome.

When you were working on this project, was there anything that you found out that surprised you?

Not so much a sense of surprise, but a renewed underscoring of the ongoing and profound influence of the Indian Penal Code, drafted by the British in the 1830s and ultimately enacted in 1860. And then went on to this global life. The British applied it more or less unchanged in essentially all of their colonies.

The Indian Penal Code is just one step removed from the basis of the Canadian Criminal Code of 1892, which remains the law of the land in Canada – so Canada's laws are historically intertwined with colonial law in India.

You have a great interest in connections between different subject areas, and how those play out across time and topic. Where do you anticipate it will take you next?

I'm working on several small article-length projects, a couple of which do come directly out of Slandering the Sacred. But my next big project is different, and I’ll be working on it all next year up at the Jackman Institute. It’s called “The Piercing Virtue: Isherwood’s Guru in Adorno’s Los Angeles”. It shares with my current book the characteristics of being transnational and transcolonial, and threads together a bunch of different things. But rather than thinking from India, it’s thinking from LA and looking at guru culture in LA from the 1920s to the 1950s as a political space.

When you think about what we call “Eastern” religions coming to the US, you typically think about the 1960s and the Beatles in Rishikesh and all of that. Actually, Indian religions got to the US way earlier, in the 1890s, even before. I'm interested in this early twentieth century period to think about what this proto counterculture is doing in LA at a particular time, the 1920s to the 1950s. The writer Christopher Isherwood became involved with the Vedanta Society of Southern California, and took a guru, Swami Prabhavananda. What would it look like, I’m asking, to theorize global religion from Los Angeles? My project takes this relationship and its historical and cultural contexts as a window on the transcolonial 1930s and ’40s.

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